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The voluntary code, unveiled at the British Museum, has been drawn up by archaeologists, museums and metal detectorists. All the main metal detector clubs and archaeological societies have signed up. The code also has the support of museums, landowners and institutional bodies including English Heritage.

The code outlines procedures that detectorists should adopt before setting out on a search: they should first obtain permission to search on the land in question; log the precise location of any find and report it to the landowner – who has a share in any reward – and the Portable Antiquities Scheme; and ideally they should join a recognised detectorist club.

The guidelines come amid increasing reports of illicit practices, including the suggestion that detectorists from the Netherlands and the United States have been searching illegally for buried treasure and then offering finds for sale on the internet.

However, in recent years amateur metal detectorists have made a number of highly important finds, including the Coenwulf gold coin found by the River Ivel in Bedfordshire in 2001, the Ringlemere Gold Cup, and the bronze Roman Staffordshire Moorlands pan. In fact, relations between the metal detectorist and heritage lobbies are much better in Britain than they are in other countries. They have improved steadily since the 1970s when the Council for British Archaeology tried to ban metal detecting altogether.

Council director Dr Mike Heyworth said attitudes had changed: “The council in those days took the view metal detecting should be stopped and banned. We now recognise the detector is a tool that can be used.”

The council has been one of the bodies pushing for the new code of conduct, which encourages responsible behaviour but also recognises the rights and role of the detectorists.